As with most Gen Xers, cold cereal played a significant role in my childhood. After all, I was a four-foot marketing target whose eye-level shelves were filled with colorful cardboard boxes touting cartoon characters and games and free toys inside. Who was I to fight the system? I begged my parents for Froot Loops; my parents willingly complied; and I would spend Saturday mornings watching cartoons while devouring virtual candy for breakfast.
But for a few months during my childhood, my parents, my brother, and I lived with Grandma and Grandpa. Grandpa ran a tight kitchen. Water, not juice, was the beverage of choice. Hamburgers on any day but Friday were out of the question. And breakfast cereals were strictly of the healthy variety.
I watched in horror as he ate one of his three favorite cereals every morning: Shredded Wheat, Bran Flakes, or Cracklin’ Oats. The Shredded Wheat was the kind without frosting, the Bran Flakes were the kind without raisins, and the Cracklin’ Oats were the kind without, well… without crackle. They were bland, potent colon warriors, and they were all that filled his cabinets; and for those few months, they were all that filled my belly. I would have sacrificed my entire Lego collection for a bowl of Lucky Charms, but such an offer was never made. So I added sugar whenever his back was turned, and I bided my time.
For good or ill, my parents were never so strict. Though their budget was lean, they always tried to buy my brother and I whatever we wanted from the grocery store, and more often than not, we’d hound them in the cereal aisle. Sugar Smacks, Cocoa Puffs, Cookie Crisp, Cap’n Crunch… The sugar run-off from these would coat our emptied bowls with a granular, milky finish. Brushing nightly did nothing to keep my baby teeth from crumbling into little bits as the dentist extracted them. Thank god your mouth gives you a second chance.
Witnessing this dental humiliation forced my mom to limit our selection a bit. So it was Honey Nut Cheerios rather than Dunkin Donuts, Golden Grahams rather than S’mores Crunch. Sweet, but not insane sweet. And it has been by this method that I’ve selected my cereals, ever since.
That is, assuming such cereals are in stock. I was at the grocery store the other day when I was forced to look for an alternative to Honey Nut Cheerios. They had sold out of them, and even though the store brand was available (Toasted Honey-Nutties, or some such nonsense), we all know the store brands are never as good as the real brands. In fact, the store was out of all my usuals—all the sweets, but not the insane sweets—and I was starting to freak out.
Then S’mores caught my eye. As did Cracklin’ Oats. And I swear, on one of my shoulders sat a devil, on the other an angel, and my entire childhood-by-way-of-cold-cereal tore through my mind. The ultimate choice between tooth-rotter and colon-blower was at my fingertips, and it was up to me to decide. Which would I choose?
Of course, I bought them both. I am a grown man, after all. I can play the extremes. But at the age of forty-three, after ingesting an entire bowl of each, I must confess: Grandpa was onto something.